Laguna Beach police and park rangers pre-emptively closed off emptying public parking lots at Aliso Beach for last Saturday’s Full Moon Drum Circle due to predictions of a large turnout, and drummers say the decision put people in peril by forcing them onto the highway.
A dozen police personnel, two rangers and a fire department division chief were deployed to the event, said police Captain Jason Kravetz. Watch commander Sgt. George Ramos estimated the crowd peaked at 800 people, backing off from an earlier figure of 3,000, which he said was a cumulative count between 5 and 10 p.m., when the circle ends.
Two hours before the drummers start patting out a rhythm at 7 p.m., police blocked off the fee parking lots with 220 spaces on both sides of the highway, refusing entry to anyone, the first time authorities have taken such an action since the circle began in 2002.
“You can’t fault them for taking pre-cautions,” said Jerry Bloch, a Laguna Niguel resident and seven-year drum circle regular. “But it seemed as if the intent was to shut it down,” he said.
“The problem we had was closing the parking lots. What’s the point of that? It was an over-reaction on their part. They made a false assumption and the action they took was highly risky to members of the public,” said Bloch, who fears that continuing crowd-control efforts will kill a monthly ritual that many enjoy. “If the police want our assistance, we’re willing to cooperate so that we can continue this amazing event.”
Laguna Beach resident Billy Fried, who started laying down the beats 12 years ago, said Park Ranger Molly Stallcup in May asked him to apply for a permit.
“She said we were doing nothing illegal, but it had become very large. They were looking for a way to manage it and I guess put the liability on an entity,” said Fried, who refused to apply for a permit after seeking legal advice from Bloch.
Since there is no person responsible for the gathering, Bloch think a permit isn’t required.
“Any kind of large event will require a permit,” said Marisa O’Neil, a spokeswoman for OC Parks, pointing out that the drum circle has grown substantially in recent months along with complaints.
The first-time joint task force between police and rangers to provide extra enforcement at Aliso Beach “is trying to address the complaints and keep it a safe gathering,” she said. O’Neil could not say whether park officials intend to require a permit of future drum circles.
Aside from occasional film shoots, The Vic, an annual skimboard contest sponsored by Victoria Skimboards at Aliso Beach, is one of the few where county permits are required.
Park officials require proof of insurance and charge a fee to evaluate scaffolding erected for banners and booths, said Victoria Skimboards founder Tex Haines, who figures the two-day contest peaks on Sunday with an audience of 500. No security is currently required, Haines said.
Like the drum circle, the contest charges no fees to bystanders.
The police response was based on monitoring of social media, the circle’s timing on a Saturday summer night and that a pedestrian was seriously injured on May 14 after drumming wrapped up, said Kravetz. “We saw it coming,” he said, and steps were taken to ensure that police could enter the crowd if a fight, for instance, occurred.
“We try to have a presence and dissuade illegal activity,” said Kravetz, adding that 15 citations were issued for minor offenses on Saturday. The circle has generated complaints about noise, fire dancers and hot coals buried in the sand, but no serious incidents, Kravetz said.
Fried conceded drugs and alcohol are likely consumed among the drumming crowd. “So I don’t begrudge the cops for coming down and ticketing people. We don’t want that scene either,” he said. The “point is I don’t fault the cops for wanting to control it. It’s gotten too big. But this was egregiously stupid, and if anyone had been hurt or killed, the LBPD and County of Orange would have the blood on their hands.”
While Kravetz stopped short of apologizing, he conceded police will re-evaluate the decision to close parking lots prior to the next full moon. “We don’t want people walking in traffic lanes or doing anything unsafe.
“We’re listening to everyone’s opinion,” he said.